Mystery Skull

11 May, 2008

Question: We were doing some work under our house and found this skull. Can you tell us what it is?

Skull of a cat, Felis catus

Skull of a cat, Felis catus (interior head, showing skull from underneath)
Photographer: Marnie Rawlinson, Cathy Accurso and Ken Walker
Source: Museum Victoria

Answer: This is the skull of a domestic cat (Felis catus). Cats, like most carnivores, have large, strong canines for ripping flesh. Their molars are also big and strong for chewing meat. If you look at the front teeth (their incisors), you will see that the third ones from the centre are larger than the others. However, all of these characteristics are shared by both cats and dogs.

Cats, however, have very short snouts so their skulls tend to be much smaller and broader than those of dogs. However, dog skulls obviously vary enormously in size depending on their breed.

Cats have enormous eye sockets to accommodate their large eyes. The widest part of the eye socket is greater than the length of the snout. Cats also have proportionally larger ear bones than dogs.

Another way to distinguish a cat skull from a dog skull is to count their teeth. Cats have fewer teeth than dogs: three incisors, a single canine, two premolars and two molars. The dental formula of a cat can be written as I3, C1, P2, M2. Dogs have only four premolars. The dental formula of dogs is I3, C1, P4, M2.

There are 24 mammal skulls on display in the Discovery Centre at the Melbourne Museum. The collection represents all of the mammal species commonly seen in Victoria and includes both a cat and a dog skull.

Photographs of the skulls of all of the mammals found in Victoria can be viewed on Museum Victoria’s BioInformatics website.

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